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Preston North End v Sunderland: Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Tactics: Mogga’s tactical switch enables Sunderland to overcome Preston

Tony Mowbray’s men (boys?) passed their way past Preston and into the play-offs, taking advantage of huge spaces in the channels on either side of the home side's back three - but one key tactical change swung the match in our favour.

Photo by Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Tony Mowbray named an unchanged XI from the draw with Watford and managed to name the same 18-man squad for the third game in a row for the first time this season.

A staple of our play this season has been a highly active and aggressive press out of possession, and this was the case again on Monday.

Preston are one of the most direct sides in the league, always looking to release one of Liam Delap, Tom Cannon, or Troy Parrott over the top - three players slight in stature but all with bags of pace who make a living sitting just off a defender's shoulder.

They’ve actually completed the fourth-highest through balls over 30 metres in length this season, and started brightly in this game too.

Delap should’ve scored a massive one-on-one chance quite early in the game, but as is typical of both his and Preston’s game this season, he failed to convert. Their other main weapon of attack is crossing into the box from each wing-back - Brad Potts and the impressive Alvaro Fernandez.

However, as with most of the season, our most effective defensive weapon is a high press led by Glehardt’s never-ending workrate to steal the ball off their central defenders and rush them into making inaccurate long balls up top.

The front five (including Pritchard, subbed on at half-time) completed 21 successful ground duels in the game, and more than 75% of these were in Preston’s own half. Patrick Roberts himself completed seven alone from 18 attempts, and in addition, completed one tackle and two interceptions.

As a result, Preston’s back-five only completed two progressive passes over 30 metres in length across the halfway line, one each from Liam Lindsay and Brad Potts.

Potts was the only one with a progressive pass completion rate of over 50% in the team.

This pinned Preston, who naturally defend in a low block anyway, back into their own half.

In place of having no natural central defenders starting, nor a defender in general standing above 6’0 in height, this aggressive defending from the front really eases the aerial burden on the defensive line.

It has been a feature of our game all season, but it was particularly key against one of the more direct sides in the league. Tom Cannon was the large reason why Preston surged up the table in the latter half of the season, scoring eight goals since he joined on loan from Everton in January, but he was only allowed one shot on target in the entire match (a header from a cross out wide-right).

This blueprint was laid out and on show very early in the game, but it was both allowed and was accentuated by the vital tactical switch at half-time by Mowbray.

Dennis Cirkin was a forced withdrawal at half-time due to injury, but instead of a like-for-like replacement in Joe Anderson (who did impress when he came on later), Mogga opted to introduce Alex Pritchard and shift from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-3.

Lynden Gooch was moved to LCB while Clarke and Roberts played as very advanced wing-backs just like Guardiola’s wingers - with the explicit aim of ensuring territorial advantage in our favour.

Pritchard and Amad flanked Joffy in free roles, neither limited to just staying in the channels, and our aggressive approach pushed Preston even deeper into their own half.

Gooch was able to fill in thanks to his own excellent defensive discipline in a back-line not too worried about being out-muscled nor out-jumped by the hosts’ slight forward line.

But Pritch’s impact was immediate.

He started the attack that led to the opener, scored, and had other great chances to net, as our attack exposed massive gaps in Preston’s own backline. Ben Whiteman was a huge miss for them, with no other midfielder a natural defensive anchorman.

Ryan Lowe is arguably the least tactically flexible boss in the entire league; Mowbray possibly the most flexible – we are not stuck to one style of play.

Our attacking tactics centre around quick progression of the ball, lightning-quick transitions, and taking advantage of spaces left by opponents, so there is an element of fluidity and unpredictability about all attacking phases.

Having said that, a staple has been wide play and progression into the channels beginning from wide areas. This wide play isn’t just about launching crosses into the box like Preston, but about carefully constructed build-up play with combinations in those wide areas to try and open up a chance on goal.

In more conventional systems, say a left-wing has the ball out wide, then the opposite winger and full-back will hold a narrow position in an attempt to overload the penalty area. However, we intentionally draw their defence out by leaving a wide man (Roberts or Clarke) hugging the touchline.

We thrive when given space, and have a strong record against sides who play with a back-three and two advanced wing-backs, with the attacking trio drifting into these spaces all game long, in every game this season.

This combination of numerical advantage, Preston’s lack of discipline, and Robert’s danger from out wide are exactly why Preston allowed Alex Pritchard all the space in the world to sit on the edge of the penalty area and make a fool of the mag in goal with a deft reverse finish.

Pritchard has been on the pitch for every single goal we have scored since Amad’s penalty against Hull in the 4-4 draw, and after what has been a bit of an average season (as I’m sure he’d admit to himself), he has been vital in the last six weeks. When he and Amad are on the pitch together, his presence allows the latter to drift into space while he still provides a central option to progress us up the pitch at pace. As seen by his role in the move below:

We did play like this in the first half, with Patrick Roberts filling this role, but sometimes our play is lopsided and results in a bigger gap than ideal in the “10 space”. Pierre Ekwah made numerous attempts to fill this in and set up our best chance of the first half, however, as shown below:

This was Ekwah’s best game for Sunderland - although the diminutive attacking midfielders rightly stole the show, he was my man of the match by quite some distance. He and Dan Neil are a well-matched pivot, and he provides some physicality, pace, and presence that Edouard Michut (while extremely talented and surprisingly feisty in the tackle) lacks.

The goals were inevitable, and once the second came, Preston were on the beach. We just battered the door down by simply passing teams to death. We pass, pass and pass again until the opposing defence is turned inside out and we have players in space on either wing ready to pounce.

Watching the game back after returning from Preston, Gary Weaver’s commentary at the end of the game sticks in my mind.

Sunderland painted their patterns on the Deepdale canvas. That second half was another work-of-art.

I’m also going to put Amad’s goal here – well, just because it is mint, he is mint, Sunlun are mint.

Oh and here’s the Clarke goal too, cos while it was an individual effort at the end, the team move preceding was utter filth.

On This Day (9 June 2007): Midfielder turns down Sunderland return – and heads to Bolton instead


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